31 July 2011

How to Create an Alien Language

If you are writing a science-fiction or fantasy story and the setting is another world, whether on a different, physical planet or a world in imagination, it is likely that when your characters encounter intelligent life there, that intelligent life (we are the "aliens" there, of course) will have some system for communication: language. There are three ways to handle this situation.

1. You create that new and different language for those "others" to use (more on this below).

2. You have someone translate what they are speaking - but then you need a character established for that, and where does one get training in, ummm Martian or TXDFGYHUJ?

3. You render the "alien" language as paraphrase: Then the F'G'HiX told them where to find water.

While some authors have argued for the second or third ways as being "realistic" and/or easier on the reader (one that comes to mind is Isaac Asimov's introduction to the novel Nightfall, based on his 1941 story [link], where he states that to use "alien" terms would be ridiculous in context and an obstacle for readers; I mentioned this in the previous posting), I find the bafflement of a character who encounters a language unknown to him/her to be an essential part of the story. His/her confusion is what readers want and need to experience...to a degree.

Granted, I do not want to unduly tax my readers, yet I feel that having some "other-language" present in a relevant scene (not added willy-nilly) adds to the setting (some call it "flavor") and can also deepen the meaning of action in the scenes (e.g., our hero smells smoke, yells "Fire!" but none of the aliens understand him; one of the aliens, seeing his consternation, tells him not to worry because they are simply roasting a Dtguuuuggbi over a bonfire in his honor; yes, after the appetizer he will be the Huguyumm [= "main course"]!)

For me, the first way of solving the problem is the most interesting. As a professional linguist, I love studying languages and comparing them. Anyone who has ever taken a foreign language in school knows that what we learn as much as the language itself is how other people think. Language reflects how a culture thinks, how they see their world. And if a sci-fi/fantasy author is building a world, certainly the language of that world (or cultures there) is of primary importance. My formal language study began with French in high school and college. Then I went to Japan. Along the way I also dabbled in German and Russian. Indo-European languages had much in common compared to Japanese, so comparing all of them was an education. As my curiosity compelled me, I also found myself studying a host of other languages: Chinese, Icelandic, Italian, Irish, Korean, Turkish, Swahili, Sanskrit/Hindi, Thai, Arabic, Spanish, Finnish, Greek, Serbo-Croatian, Quechua, Inuit, and Klingon.

There are several things you need to do to create a language. 

First, choose the structure of communication, the sentence pattern. There are only three so this is the easy part, unless you wish to create a new one. The main two are:

Subject - Verb - Object     is what we use in English, for the most part. ("I love you.")
Subject - Object - Verb     is used in many European languages and sometimes in English ("I thee wed.")

A third pattern is:

Object - (particle) - Subject - Verb     is what is used in Japanese. The particle is not a word but an indicator of function of the preceeding word in the sentence ("wo," "wa," and "ga"). ("[implied object, implied subject] aisteru" = "you I love.")

You could also employ Verb - Subject - Object ("okka debu sofak") or even Verb - Object - Subject ("okka sofak debu") but how will you keep the meaning clear? You can use those "particles" - like this: "okka debu ro sofak" so that "ro" indicates the one doing the action (the subject "debu" doing action "okka" to object "sofak"). Then you can switch the words around any way you like and still have it make sense. Supposedly.

Or, you could create something altogether different, depending on the kind of society of the language. For example, if it were to be a polyamorous society then singular verb forms would not exist, or would be considered rude. They might say: "We love us." There would still be a subject and an object, just not singular pronouns.

The next thing you need is a lexicon, sometimes called the vocabulary. (Many linguists declare that the grammar comes before the words but that is rather like deciding whether the chicken or the egg came first; in the end you need one in order to do anything with the other.) I went through a dictionary and made a list of all the words I wanted to use. I broke some words into several words (e.g., "fly" became "fly like a bird," "fly like on an airplane," and "fly like a rocket"), and combined other words.

Of course, this began with the words in a few phrases already in the story. I invented what was spoken in the story, then back-engineered the grammar. I foresaw the need to create new sentences for these "alien" characters, so I began my project. I chose the basic Subject-Verb-Object pattern for Ghoupallean, but to make it "seem" like a real language I added some quirky grammar rules and a huge list of very detailed and specific pronouns, a mind-boggling compendium of pronouns, such that a non-native speaker would never be able to get them correct beyond the most basic level of fluency. For the northern warrior race, the Zetin, I decided on a consonant heavy language, distantly imitating the grunts of military Klingon. To compensate for the difficulty of pronunciation, I made the grammar easy.

In the Dream Land trilogy, the southern desert race, the Roue, is an interesting case. For their language, I wanted something melodious so I modeled it after Hawaiian, very vowel-heavy with glottal stops, catches in the throat between vowels. But it becomes difficult when you realize that Roue is based on numbers and they use a base-20 system. In other words, instead of counting 1 through 10 and starting over with 11 through 20, and so forth, they go straight from 1 through 20 before starting over. It gets worse. They don't just say "I love you" - no, each word is a number on a master list of words! If the word "I" is, say, number 5 and the words "love" and "you" were numbers 11 and 9 respectively, then when they say "I love you" they would be speaking numbers "five-eleven-nine"! (Ah! But how would they distinguish actual numbers from the words? Fair question; clever answer: There is a "number" that designates that the numbers which follow are used as numbers rather than words. Follow?)

Anyway, the words. It's all about the words. Just make them up. However, like real languages, words tend to be related. Related words have related spelling and pronunciation. (We shall forego discussion here of the various written scripts that an alien society may use to share their communication.)

Notice how words are constructed in English. Take the car, for example. Car comes from carriage; a carriage is a type of wagon, a conveyance used in the era before the combustible engine. You see how the society's needs force the creation of new words to describe new things? Aliens do that, too; make your words fit. Another name for car is automobile. The automobile is a moving conveyance which can move on its own power, not pulled by polar bears or giraffes or tyggfix: autocar could work just as well, yet notice how the longer word automobile, made of a root word mobile and a prefix auto, gradually comes to be shortened to just auto. However, I've not yet heard self-propelled howitzer called a self.

Today the word "app" (short for "application"; I suppose in our quickened society we cannot be bothered with uttering a couple more syllables or we'd miss the next tweet from people we don't know) stands in as a whole slew of other words. The next generation will not know that "app" once meant "application," which is what other people call "software" or, when computers first became consumer devices, a "program." Words have history; they change; their usage changes. Build that in when you create your alien language.

In English we have several categories of words, based on what function each has in a sentence: nouns, verbs, pronouns, prepositions, articles, conjunctions, adjectives, adverbs, interjections [chart]. In Ghoupallean, I simplified it down to four categories or "families": thing-family (nouns, pronouns), motion-family (verbs), flavor-family (adjectives, adverbs), and relational family (the helping words: articles, conjunctions, prepositions). You can decide what categories your alien language will have.

Next comes grammar. It's just a bunch of rules for putting the words together. Basically, it comes down to this question: Do the words change form or are they static? This mostly occurs with verbs, but also with other parts of speech when they must match the form of the verbs. In English, following the practices of languages that came before us, such as Latin, we tend to change the ending of a word to show a change in meaning. Take the verb "fly": depending on the situation, we can write or speak "fly" or "flew" or "flown," but we know it's the same word really. In your alien language, will you have similar changes (and the rules that keep it organized), or will you show the same changes perhaps by using other words (helper words)?

fly (present) - flew (past) - will fly (future)

In Ghoupallean we change the ending of the word to match the time (the ending en indicates a verb):

soren (present) - sorend (past) - ge-soren (future)

But if you did not want to have words change according to a pattern, then you need to have some way to indicate when the action occurs. Try some kind of particle:

Let's say that qu means the same as "fly" (what a bird does, not necessarily what an airplane does). Then you could have the following system:

qu (present) - iz qu (past) - me qu (future) ......or smash'em together: qu, iqu, mqu............

which is not too different from the Ghoupallean pattern. But suppose you changed the word completely just to show the change of time? You might then have something like:

qu (present) - fo (past) - vi (future)

which would be fine, except that as an author you'd never be able to keep it straight in your head. Keep it simple yet have a few strange rules (grammar) to make it feel real.

The last part is the pronunciation guide. How are these characters (granted, we must generally use the Roman alphabet in our stories) to be pronounced? Most phrase books will compare the sounds of the new language with English phonemes (a single vowel or consonant utterance). For example (using Ghoupallean):

S s          Sounds as [s] in “sassy” in all positions; when doubled and between vowel phonemes, it sounds as [ss] in “scissors”; when written with [h] in this dictionary transcription sounds as [sh] in “shoe” or “mesh”.
Š š (Sh)   Sounds as [sh] in “shoe” or “mesh” in all positions.
sz            Sounds as [s] in “has” or [z] in “buzz”; only found in final position.
szs          Sounds as /zh/ in “azure” or the French word “menage”; only found in final position.

For me, when this madness first began in childhood, I was limited only by what characters I could produce on a typewriter keyboard. I tried combining characters or using symbols as additional letters. When I upgraded to the IBM Selectric with the balls of typeface, I could switch them (to get different fonts, for one thing). I then had a vast library of letters to use. The computer and MS Word now allow me to bring in many additional letters and accent marks from languages used around the world.

But remember, an alien language is not very likely to use the Roman alphabet - unless you invent some causal explanation, such as long ago one of the aliens visited Earth and shared their language writing system with an old Phoenician scholar, etc. (Well, it could've happened!)

That's enough for now, perhaps forever. Grammar can be fun, especially if you get to make up the rules. Play around with your alien language, speak it aloud, invent a script (something like a secret code from childhood?), and have fun!

Rbfj[I nfadko[ jgvakoi koj nk nw guypphviphvi UHWE!

21 July 2011

Saying "To Be or Not to Be" and Meaning It

People say I am clever in certain ways--clever perhaps meaning smart in nefarious situations. Others don't know me so well and thus believe I am innocent of all wrong doing. Still others would blame me for any hesitancy in the spin of the Earth, much less the various quirks of life that ruin their quirky lives. But one thing I do that tends to infuriate people around me is talk about language. More precisely, talk about inventing languages.

When it comes to science-fiction or fantasy, we often find ourselves in worlds new and different from our own (for most of you, that's a reference to Earth). Such new places will naturally have their own cultures, much of that based on the particular geography, history, and environmental factors of the place (for example, the floating mountains in the film Avatar). A monster part of any culture is language. It's needed to express everything in that culture, so how the language is born from the culture and how the culture infuses the language with meaning has always been a prime concern of mine as I read and write in these genres.

Which brings me to Star Trek. First the movies then the subsequent new television series made use of alien languages, especially Klingon. That was what intrigued me most when I saw the film: seeing Christopher Lloyd as a Klingon speaking the lingua franca of Kling! Then, for those who demanded it, a dictionary and phrase book was published for Klingon devotees around the universe. (There are now "institutes" of Klingon language study (here's one). My study of language* since then, however, has revealed to me that Klingon is essentially Greenlandic Inuit, the language spoken by the native inhabitants of Greenland**. Though no creditation is given (look here), it became apparent only through my studies. James Doohan is credited with originating a few basic phrases and Marc Okrand is credited with the subsequent development of the full-scale language. One significant feature of both languages is the way meaning is constructed through a root word with countless prefexes, interfixes, and suffixes to create huge words--like saying a whole sentences worth of meaning in a single 20-syllable word. Forget Klingon (for now).

By the time I first heard Klingon, I had long been at work on the languages used in The Dream Land trilogy (to catch you up, check this earlier blog post of mine here). Some critics (here's one) have slammed the use of "alien" languages in science-fiction and fantasy novels, but I believe they are crucial to the weave of the landscape setting of such stories. Use of alien languages, like the use of foreign phrases in literary or other genre fiction, is a device best used sparingly lest it tire the reader. (I, however, love the use of such phrases so I would be a reader who was not made tired by its use.)

The use of alien languages is appropriate in the following cases:

1) In dialog, when the character is speaking it. Why wouldn't a native speaker of Danid speak Danid? But then it is best to slip into a paraphrase of what is said rather than write it all out in the alien language.

2) To describe or refer to something for which English has no effective word, or when English cannot render the idea as subtly or with appropriate nuance as the foreign/alien word or phrase. As a writer, you could have another character or the narrator point out that the meaning is such that it needs to be uttered in the nuances of that language; English would not have a suitable equivalent. This is the case for alien flora and fauna, as well as distinctly alien customs which would take several paragraphs to explain.

3) To add to the soundscape of the setting. In this case, if my hero were on another world, he would hear people of that world speaking their own language. If he does not know the language himself, or knows it imperfectly or incompletely, he could only guess at the meaning. In that way, the reader can experience the hero's disorientation along with the hero. Again, don't tax your reader's patience by going on too long; learn the fine art of the paraphrase. Start the spoken alien language, then switch to the paraphrase or summary of what was said. Point out subtleties in meaning where appropriate. (Examples to follow next blog post.)

And so we see/hear that there are useful uses for alien tongues (besides mopping in the corners of the kitchen floor). Now, how in the alien world do we create one? 

Study all you can at one of the Klingon institutes for one example. Or wait until I find the time to scribble out another bloggette and I shall take you step-by-step through the process I used to create the principal language of Ghoupallesz! (Meanwhile, brush up on your grammar terminology, especially the parts of speech! Try here.)

So, the fateful question is rendered "taH pagh taHbe'!"  in Klingon.

(According to Klingon sources, everyone knows that Shakespeare was half-Klingon. Check out the Klingon Hamlet here.)


* In my day job I am expected to expound profoundly on the structure of language, with particular emphasis on Engish. Although I have formally studied only French, Japanese, and a bit of German and self-studied a dozen more Earth languages, I seem able to become fully fluent only in my first-language, American English. To compensate for such linguistic irony, I have developed the ability to speak English in 12 distinct accents.

** My study of Greenlandic comes from a project in a sociolinguistics course during my doctoral program a few years back, and not as preparation, some might guess, for my recurring role as one of the husbands in the Desperate Housewives of Nuuk television drama, which was just picked up for a second season.

15 July 2011

The first time didn't really hurt so much.

It wasn't as complicated as I had been led to believe by a few smart-ass teenagers. My first Tweet, that is. (Is that what they're called? Makes me think of Tweety Bird, the nemesis of Sylvester.)  Find me at @StephenSwartz1 if you've got a fetish for stupid quips about life.

Today I joined the Twitter generation. Or should that be generationS? Can't be too sure what year I'm living in any longer, what with all these wonderful, new devices, and the strange customs that inevitably come with them.  Oh, when will it end?  Never.  Probably.

I imagine someday we will all stay at home 24/7.  The daily routine will be to roll out of bed and crawl into some lounge chair, feet up, electronics on, and just connect with the world.  Ah! Much like what was portrayed in that sci-fi flick a couple years back called Surrogates (IMDb).  In that film, people stayed home and from there operated robots that acted for them, did their jobs, and were infinitely better looking.  The flesh-and-bloods lived in their pajamas and looked like drained death.

Are we so far from that today?  Profile pics, competition for followers, the "like" culture (Click to "Like"), the quest for relevancy in an increasingly mundane world--all are symptoms of a drastic shift from the gentle innocence of a simpler time when electronic devices were limited to transistor radio and black-and-white televisions that offered us 3 channels (4 or 5 if you had an UHF antenna).  I saw a glimpse of that recently.  Or call it a cruel flick of nostalgia.  The film Tree of Life (Another something to click on!), though it seemed to me too long and slow for what it ultimately portrays, reminded me what it was like to be a boy and play outside, to run and jump, and throw and fight, and swim in a creek, and everything I did before I got my first computer in 1986.

No, I'm not one of those anarchists who want to return to the uncomplicated past.  I love having a computer to type out my novels.  Those of you who lived to experience the endless frustrations of the typewriter know what I mean.  And I liked having MTV in the 1980s, back when they actually played music videos all day.  Now there is more than ever to choose from and yet I find myself choosing "off" as my favorite channel--next to The Weather Channel (Check your weather!).  I don't need the radio any longer, either, because now I can listen to exactly and only what I choose via CDs or, more recently, mp3 downloads.  It is a world of focusing on me, what I want, and I want it now.  And I really, really want to blog!

Life would be so much the better if I did not have to find and maintain some kind of employment to produce, in exchange for decades' long compilation of intellectual fodder and slight physical effort, the suitable financial compensation to enable me to continue driving the "me, all me" consumerism to which I am expected to participate (to keep the overheating economy rolling along), and for which I will be constantly rewarded by a greater range of choices in absolutely everything but DNA.  Not that I wish any of that scenario to change.  Then I would have nothing to blog about.

Or tweet about.  (Did I use that term correctly?)

11 July 2011

On the Origin of Characters

Where do characters come from?

It seems like such a simple thing, both to readers and to many authors.  Where do characters come from?  The simple answer is that, like flesh and blood characters (Yep, he's quite a character, my Uncle Bernie!"), they are born, for better or worse.

I recently read a blog posting about this subject by Danielle Raver, in which she discusses how one of the three protagonists in her novel Brother, Betrayed was "born"--Check it out:

So, in authorly fashion, I decided to borrow the idea.  That's original.  No, seriously: Danielle's post made me think about where my own characters originated.  I've always known deep down inside, of course, but those secrets are sworn to secrecy.  I don't even tell myself.

For me and my novels, characters come from two sources (Here's your "duh" moment, loyal readers): I invent them or I really invent them.

In the former, I mean that I compose the various aspects of a character (speech patterns, appearance, behavior, quirks, personality, world view, fashion sense, psychological motivations, etc.) from different people I know or have known.  It often makes for interesting results.

For one example, in my literary novel A Beautiful Chill (coming in January 2012, or a few days after, from Shelfstealers Books), one major minor character (Is that semantically correct?) is Lance Albright, an old writer of former fame now spending a year as writer-in-residence at the campus in the novel.  Early in the story he is described thus:

Albright had published fourteen novels and in his prime he was a notorious sybarite. What Eric saw was a surly old man—much like his father, perhaps, though taller and much plumper in his eccentric Southwestern fashion, a barrel-chested Santa Claus with a golden baldness and a wide, white-bearded, bespectacled face, a loud man who growled without opening his mouth and who seemed to prefer that people left him alone.

In reality (a fantasy if ever there was one!), Albright is a compilation of several real people. I doubt that any of them read this blog so it may be permissible to name names, so I shall.  The appearance of Albright comes from the actual visiting poet at the campus (real school: Wichita State University), Paul Zimmer combined with regular faculty member Philip Schneider for the Western themed fashion.  The rakish sybarite aspects of Albright come from visiting fiction writer at WSU, Louis B. Jones, who while consulting with him about my latest manuscript seemed more interested int the female colleague of mine walking by outside his office and so spent the majority of our time asking questions about her.  (Sorry, Louis, but it's the truth.)  Many of the quips Albright says come from the standard repertoire of quips by faculty member Stephen Hathaway, with whom I had two fiction workshops, including the opening chapters of A Beautiful Chill.  There are lesser aspects of Albright which were snatched here and there from my colleagues (MFA students), faculty members (not all of them in the English department), and my own twisted imagination.

In the interest of full-disclosure and the pleasure of fiction creation and fiction reading, please don't sue me.  You and I both know it's all in fun.  I wish you all well, as I wish you wish me well, too, as a fellow author.  Besides, Albright has a very good time during his year's visit on campus.  Don't believe me?  Buy it, read it, review it.

In the latter case, I completely invent a character from scratch.  Oh, I suppose there is a point of origin, perhaps in stock characters or stereotypes.  Then I build on it.  As the story goes on and I get to know the shaped-from-clay character, he or she often develops his/her own personality, behavior, quirks, etc.

For an example of this, I offer my latest, a novel titled After Ilium (available from Fantasy Island Book Publishing about now) and the two main characters, Alex Parris and his lover/nemesis, Elena.  This is an example, also, of a story being plotted prior to character development.  That is, I knew how the story would progress so I chose characters that would fit into that plot.

In After Ilium, a young man, fresh from college graduation, gets his wish to visit the historic site of ancient Troy (called "Ilium" in every other breath).  On the way, he meets the older woman, Elena, who he draws into conversation and lets her draw him into an affair.  He thinks big plans, a future with her while she clearly is interested only in a quick dalliance.  When they tour the site of Ilium, Alex plays historian and bores Elena, so she tries to get his attention back--which only causes Alex the first of many troubles as he tries to return to her.  No spoilers!

The point is that I needed an innocent, naive young man to play Alex.  I have never known such a person (except, perhaps, myself [he sheepishly confesses]) and so I could not draw upon such real people.  Alex majored in History so I needed to have him sound like a history fanatic.  As for Elena, I had the image/appearance in mind first (no, not from surfing porn!): she had to be Greek-ish and voluptuous, beautiful in a more mature way than the svelte co-eds Alex has known.  The exotic appeal would be irresistible to Alex.  They make a great couple...as long as he gives her all the attention she did not get from her busy husband.

Two characters that are stock figures, sure.  But as we get to know them in the story, we get to know them: they take on individual characteristics, develop personalities, act in ways  consistent with their personalities and experiential backgrounds.  In short, they become real characters--or at least more realistic.  In a story where the plot and story arc is set, I plugged in the kind of characters that would make it work.

Curious to see how I pull it off?  Buy it, read it, review it.  Then get all of your family and friends to buy it, read it, review it.  And have them tell their family and friends to buy it, read it, review it.  And so on....



I got the first review of AFTER ILIUM.  "Yea, me!" (imagine kindergartener voice)

5.0 out of 5 stars An Anti-Romance with Passion and AdventureJuly 15, 2011
Amazon Verified Purchase 
This review is from: After ILium (Kindle Edition)
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was well-paced and the characters were engaging and realistic. Don't read it if you are expecting a sappy romance novel. Passion, violence, adventure, history, mythology, tragedy and betrayal couldn't be woven together into a more enjoyable tale. After Ilium has a wide audience of readers it will please.


Thanks, Danielle! I'm glad you liked it. Definitely NOT for YA, right?